Opinion | Liddick: A killing and the Kingdom
October 22, 2018
Let's devote some time to the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi. We might discover a few things.
For those hanging so breathlessly on the minutiae of Elizabeth Warren's miniscule native American-ness that they have little attention for things that actually matter, Khashoggi is a Saudi expatriate living in the U.S. and occasionally committing journalism for the Washington Post. Or he was until last week, when he walked into the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul and vanished.
Khashoggi has been labelled a reformer due largely to his work with "al-Watan" newspaper, the brainchild of Prince Bandar bin Khalid al Faisal, a businessman who has worked for decades to strengthen ties between Saudi Arabia and the West. He frequently criticized the stranglehold religious authorities have on life in the kingdom, even publishing a poet whose work challenged the tenets of Salafism, a popular flavor of the strict interpretation of Islamic principles there. For that and other improprieties he was sacked, twice.
After the second firing, Khashoggi became a commentarist-at-large, appearing on whatever media outlet would offer him a forum. He became increasingly outspoken about the denial of basic rights in the kingdom, and of the Saudi war in Yemen. In both, he was quickly identified as a vocal and effective critic of crown prince Mohammad bin Salman.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a country like no other. It's better to think of it as a closely held family corporation with geographic borders, an effective intelligence service and a small but powerful military. There are the trappings of monarchy — a king, crown prince and a plethora of other royalty — but decisions are almost always taken by a small number of elder members of the royal board of directors. No one rules alone or unfettered.
The kingdom is also at a delicate point: all of the sons of the founding dynasty have passed from power, if not from life. In its past two iterations, the Saudis did not handle these transitions well, and collapsed. This history makes the ruling family nervous.
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There are also powerful cross-currents and adversaries, including Iran and Turkey. The Saudis consider Iran under the Mullahs an existential threat, for economic, geostrategic and religious reasons. Consequently they have assiduously cultivated ties with western powers, particularly Great Britain and the United States. We sell them weapons; they, together with their allies in the region, work to keep Iran's ambitions somewhat in check.
Turkey, on whose ground Khashoggi disappeared, has been having a tug-of-war over leadership within the Sunni Islamic world with Saudi Arabia, particularly in what used to be the Ottoman Empire. Under Turkish President Erdogan, resentment over the kingdom's outsized role in the neighborhood has continued to simmer.
Why does any of this matter? Because despite the rush to pin Khashoggi's murder directly and personally on Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, there are other plausible theories of the crime. Let's examine the question, "who benefits?"
Who benefits most from the murder of a prominent liberal voice criticizing the more retrograde aspects of Saudi society, particularly its domination by an ultraconservative religious caste? Especially when said murder is committed by what seems a homicidal version of the Keystone Kops, in a way and place well-suited to create international anger? Would this bumbling crime more likely be ordered by a prince dedicated to pushing his country toward the modern world, or by those most committed to stopping him and in the process, destroying efforts to associate the Kingdom more closely with the West? One of these might be former Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who had close and longstanding ties to Saudi intelligence services and who Salman replaced in 2017.
Think of the platoon-size "covert" hit squad, whose aircraft and members were all photographed coming and going through Turkey's largest airport, and who were videotaped again arriving and departing the Istanbul consulate. The supposed recording, made in a building one would think proof against electronic eavesdropping. The vanished body, the immediate hue-and-cry, the brontosaurus-sized footprints leading directly to the crown prince's front door. If this were a movie, most people would already be trying to figure out who really ordered the killing.
For those drunk on Trump-hate, this might seem an opportunity to embarrass the president, based on our longstanding geopolitical and economic relationship with the Saudis. It might offer an irresistible opportunity to blame him indirectly for the murder: "Trump hates the press. This guy is a journalist. Trump did it." But such blind foolishness is beyond dangerous. Better to wait a few days and see what an investigation turns up.
Lest we awake months from now to find our impetuousness and emotion has led us to an unpleasant place from which there is no easy exit.
Morgan Liddick writes a weekly column for the Summit Daily News.
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